What's up Lane Kiffin's sleeve?

LOS ANGELES -- There has got to be more in there, a little pile of gunpowder waiting for a spark.

If you witnessed the end of the USC Trojans' 2011 season, you saw a quarterback improving so rapidly he was beginning to live up to unrealistic hype. You saw a pair of receivers so good they left a trail of chasing defensive backs grasping at jerseys and thin air. You saw a team flinging and running its way back onto the red carpet.

And then this dull thud.

It's been a while since a USC offense had this much first-round talent. Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Silas Redd, all experienced, all protected by a solid offensive line -- and this is the best they can do? Score 20-something points in three of the past four games against less-than-dominant opponents?

Something's going on. Maybe, collectively, they're just not as good as everybody thought. That's one thought. Maybe that win at Oregon, that demolishing of UCLA last fall created a haze that shadowed some of the weaknesses, an overreliance on center Khaled Holmes, a shakiness on third down or a lack of discipline.

But I think it's something else.

I think it's all about Lane Kiffin and his never-ending scheming, his poking and prodding for a strategic edge. This is all by design.

Kiffin took a long, penetrating look at USC's schedule last spring. He knew he had to usher Barkley safely into November, with brutally tough games against Oregon and Notre Dame at the end. He knew how the BCS tends to reward teams that finish with a roar. He knew that, even if something went awry and the Trojans lost one game in the interim, that it's rare nowadays -- with conference championship games -- that the national title game features two undefeated teams.

He saw a lot of those things right in front of him last season, when USC shot from No. 18 to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll in just a few weeks. It's all about how you finish in the upper echelon of college football.

All this time, Kiffin has been holding the USC offense back, leashing and muzzling this tiger to set it loose at the end and see who it mauls.

He doesn't deny this theory.

"I think that, as a head coach, which is different oftentimes than as an offensive coordinator, you look at the big picture more," Kiffin said.

He was worried about getting Barkley hurt last week, so once USC had a comfortable lead at Washington and quieted an unruly crowd, he put the offense in its shell, handing the ball off for most of the second half. It wasn't popular with USC fans and, frankly, it wasn't popular with USC's players, but it spoke to long-term planning.

That's what this always has been about.

You figure Kiffin has to start letting this thing loose a week from Saturday, against a high-scoring Arizona team in Tucson. After that, the schedule is unrelenting. Oregon, again with designs on a national title, is at the Coliseum on Nov. 3. Then it's a rematch with a team that beat the Trojans last year, Arizona State, followed by rivalry games against UCLA and Notre Dame.

USC might even face Oregon a second time in the Pac-12 title game. Difficult as it is, that's a lot of opportunities to make up serious ground.

If USC finishes like it did last season, it will be in the thick of the national championship picture. You don't even have to pry into the details too deeply to see that. Four of the teams ahead of it in the BCS standings play in the SEC, so there will be plenty of neighborhood fighting to take care of them. Oregon State has to play Oregon.

"You'll see us come on a lot stronger the last couple weeks of the season," Barkley said. "You never want that. You never want to start slow and finish strong. You want to come out with a bang and finish with a bang, but if we end up finishing strong and there's a correlation with that, so be it."

If nothing else, Kiffin owes it to the fans to put on a better show. He owes it to the players to let them do their thing. Woods and Lee are building NFL résumés, good ones. Barkley is doing that too, while also keeping an eye on the Heisman race. Think he came back to drop 27 points on Cal?

That second half in Seattle, when Lee and Woods became blockers and Barkley became a handoff machine, wasn't fun for those guys. Nobody is hiding it.

"We have a lot of weapons, and we should be doing a lot better," Woods said.

You can't do any damage if you're stuck in the scabbard.